This week I was asked some pretty interesting questions on the topic of dying as an Atheist, I decided to blog about it...
Every one will eventually suffer the loss of someone they love in the most final of ways : Death!
As an Atheist, the death of someone is the end of their existence and therefore the end of our interaction forever. We all have our own ways of grieving and mourning, while believers may say it’s a comfort to know that one day you’ll be reunited in the after life, I think this diminishes the person’s memory. (full post at http://theatheistme.wordpress.com)
But seeing as there isn't an "Atheism dogma", I thought I'd ask the question here too.
As an Atheist, how have you grieved? How do you honour the memory of someone? What “ritual” do you practice when someone you know and love dies?
I believe that mourning over a loved ones death is truly inevitable and healthy. I believe that it is more healthy though to simply reflect over the good times which were spent with the loved one instead of grieving over the fact you will never see the person ever again. The latter may bring about a longing for something that is improbable, and thus may lead to deep depression. I believe that people do not actually have a problem with letting go of a loved one, as much as they do simply longing for something that cannot be. Let us focus on what was, and move forward.
I must stress though how important it is to avoid the holding back of emotions. If tears come, let them come.
My grandmother passed away whom I was very close to. I actually did not cry when she passed away, for I simply was so grateful for the time spent with her, I did not feel the need to long for more from her. I removed my emotional attachment to her (which did not even remotely exist biologically), and looked at it as it was. She passed away, and at best, was freed from the sufferings of the earth. Ashes to ashes. Ajahn Chah once said, "When one does not understand death, life can be very confusing." I suppose this has never been difficult for me, but I imagine for many that it is.
Hopefully this response helps to answer your question. This is all, of course my opinion and I do not expect everyone to agree with me. A lot of people may see my response as cold, but I simply see the passing of a loved one as I see the leaves changing colors upon the trees and eventually fall upon the ground, returning to the earth.
Cry, remember, laugh, etc. Basically the same as the religious only without the weirdness.
I'm basically a big blubbering mess at funerals, even if I didn't know the deceased. The loss of a loved one is a big deal, and the empathy can overcome me at times. To understand this and how I grieve, you probably have to know my experience with loss.
In high school, five of my friends died in three different car accidents over the course of two months. I was technically still catholic at this point in my life, but the thought of reuniting 70-80 years in the future (assuming I lived a long, full life) didn't even really cross my mind. The loss of that day and that tomorrow were just so powerful, and the idea that anyone could die at any age was paralyzing. I spent a lot of time alone, walking, crying, yelling out in anger...nothing anyone said about god or heaven brought me comfort...and then I started remembering all of the ways in which I was different and better for having known them...I thought about how many other people still here living and breathing loved them and knew them and were better for it...and I realized that in a way they would always be here with us, through our actions and our memories and our lives. It's a bit more complicated than just that, but it was essentially this thought that brought me the comfort and courage I needed to move on.
Since then, I've had the experience and time to accept death as a part of life. I came to terms with my own mortality, and while I don't wish for it anytime soon, the thought of dying doesn't really scare me or make me sad. I do my best to treasure each and every moment, as the time that we do have, despite our best efforts, could be much shorter than we think. I think of my life on a grander scale, as one speck in a grand universe of space and time. It comforts me to think that life will go on without me (as it has for those long gone) and that perhaps, albeit on a much smaller scale, I have changed and will change some things or people for the better. Perhaps that cycle of life will come to an end one day as well, but until it does...this matters, we matter.
Now when I lose a loved one (which thankfully doesn't happen too often), I still need some time to cry over the loss of something and someone so special, but eventually I hear my mom laugh the way that grandpa always made her laugh and I catch myself saying his words while teaching my friend to fish. I cherish what was, accept what is, and go on living as that is the only way that I will ever see them again.
I celebrate their time here on the planet with me.
Think about them as they were. Tend not to go to wakes because of that. I don't want to see them all dressed up in a coffin, a pod with no life force in it, a casting; and remember my last image of them as that. I'd rather remember them as they were when they were alive. I never saw my dad like that. I chose to cremate him and set him off in the Caribbean, which was his wish.
Recently one of the friends we rode with passed away. His name was Big Ty, well that's what we called him because in every aspect of his life he was bigger than life. He was 46, left behind three wonderful grown children and his wife. I for one did not attend the "seeing" as they called it. I was among a few invited but refused. Instead I chose to hang with the seven other riders who converged from all corners of the country on Phoenix, Arizona and celebrate the life of our friend and brother Big Ty. I guess that's how I mourn... Great topic.
When my mother died, it was after a very long illness in the course of which went into a gradual dementia. The dementia was not of the Alzheimer's kind but rather a severe turning inward and being unresponsive, probably due to a combination of heavy pain medication and whatever residual unbearable pain was not being adequately treated. She died while I was out on a vacation to Mexico. My father asked me not to return because there was little I could do for him (my brother and sister were at his side) and he knew we had saved for years to have our first major vacation. Of course, the vacation was not much fun for me, but at least my wife and daughter had a good time.
To tell the truth, I didn't grieve all that much at my mom's death. I think it's because with her dementia she had been dying to me anyway. Her physical death just capped it off while meaning an end to her pain as well.
I was in my early 30's when she died. I'm 67 now and my dad died early last year. I grieved much more for his loss because he was much more with us up till his death. Also, I took care of him for his last year, during which I was with him during his suffering. His suffering had little to do with pain, though both his hands were deformed due to arthritis and I knew that even holding a spoon was painful for him.
His pain was psychic. He was proud of being able to care for himself, and he did for many years, up until age 90 or so. But he reached a point where he was losing control of his bodily functions and had to wear diapers. Not just that, after a while he couldn't change them himself. So, I cared for my father as if he were a baby who could walk, though not very well, but still had to have someone change his diapers for him.
He fell in the middle of night one night and was found by the housekeeper who came in several days a week. Luckily no broken bones, but he tore up his skin in several places and since he was taking a very strong blood thinner, they bled for days. We got him patched up but this was the beginning of the end. He became very fearful of walking. When we helped him stand up, he'd say "I'm going to fall! I'm going to fall!" We reassured him that we would make sure nothing bad would happen, but there was no way to clear his mind of this paranoia.
It became clear that he needed 24/7 professional clinical care. Being a WWII veteran, he had very generous benefits, but they would have forced him into a care facility in Toledo, far enough from Cleveland to mean family visits would have been far less frequent than if we could find something hear home. We found a skilled nursing facility that he co combination of his Social Security income and a small retirement annuity and some monthly cash chipped in by my brother. He lived there for 2 or 3 months. I would visit him perhaps 4 or 5 times a week. If I had had a car, it would have been daily, but every time I visited him I depended upon a very inefficient public transportation schedule, and it killed an entire afternoon, this during a period when I was looking for work.
He finally came down with a blood infection and started to deteriorate rapidly. His mental health deteriorated rapidly and by the time he had to be taken to a hospital for intensive care, his dementia was full-blown. Most of what he said revealed he was living in a terror-filled fantasy world.
After four days in the hospital, the doctors assessed that his situation was terminal. His systems were shutting down in a fatal cascade. They advised that we should start thinking in terms of hospice care rather than medical care. The hospice nurse assessed his situation and agreed that he was in a hopeless situation and advised that we simply make him as comfortable as possible while denying him food and water, which would hasten the end.
Now, I know a lot of people are opposed to assisted suicide, but this common hospice practice might actually be characterized as assisted murder, and yet it appears to be perfectly legal, so I wonder what the problem is with assisted suicide?
We took him to my sister's house and at least one family member was with him at all times till the end. I was in the room with him watching TV. As I did frequently, I got up to check on him. His breathing was labored and very shallow. I counted seconds between breaths. Thirty seconds, 45 seconds, 60 seconds, and then after two minutes I told my nephew to tell the others, who had been doing yard work, that dad had died. We all gathered around. My sister claims she actually saw his last breath and I don't mind if she believes that, but I don't. She wants to feel she was by his side when he died and not cleaning up the yard. I understand.
I cried. We all cried. Blubbering, I said, "I lost my daddy." He was a living example of a father of he best kind. Always ready to help, never intruding or interfering in our lives. We loved him so much that there is a hole in all of our lives that he once occupied. He set a very high bar that, I'm sure, none of us can feel confident we've reached. I know I have not, but I know I would have been a far worse person without having such a good example to follow.
So, that is my grief story.